Historic buildings transformed into cultural and commercial quarter in Halifax

Emma Clayton Leisure and Lifestyle Editor

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THERE is nowhere quite like the Piece Hall. Halifax’s Grade I listed complex of buildings is the last survivor of the 18th century northern cloth halls; built in neo-classical splendour to show off the wealth and ambition of local manufacturers.

It opened in 1779 for the trading of cloth ‘pieces’ produced on handlooms. Cloth had been hand-made locally between the 12th and 18th centuries. Today Piece Hall is one of Britain’s most outstanding Georgian buildings, a monument to the hand-woven textile trade of the pre-industrial West Riding.

It has been a hub of Halifax life for almost 250 years - and now, following a £19 million renovation, it enters a new chapter, as a bustling cultural and commercial centre.

The newly re-opened Piece Hall blends beautifully restored historic features with striking contemporary designs. A re-designed courtyard, with quirky steps and water features, is like a vibrant European city square. I went along last Saturday and the place was filled with people of all ages, wandering around and enjoying al fresco dining and drinks. As well as a range of shops, with more opening soon, attractions include an east wall extension to include bars, restaurants and conference areas.

An interactive heritage space, The Piece Hall Story, opens up the building’s past and its significance in the world’s woollen trade. Artefacts include the Halifax Gibbet blade (an early version of the Guillotine that once stood in the town), an 18th century loom and Georgian costumes to dress up in. In the Map Room interactive maps show how Halifax cloth was traded across the world, and the Trader’s Room has a cloth unit in its original condition. Here you can experience the sights and sounds of Piece Hall on a busy trading day in 1779.

I’ve visited Piece Hall since I was a child and have always loved it. Its renovation is hugely impressive; transforming it into a bustling 21st century multi-purpose venue. The courtyard will house a year-long programme of festivals and other events. Today sees family heritage tours led by “Georgian Gent” John Caygill, and later this month the People’s Fair flows in for the finale to ‘Landlines and Watermarks’, a cultural programme celebrating the resilience of Calder people following the floods of recent years. Commissioned from Bradford-based 509 Arts, the six-month programme saw local artists working with people from flood-hit towns including Brighouse, Hebden Bridge and Mytholmroyd.

The People’s Fair presents six of these projects, including Gurgle Splosher; a ‘sound-sculpture’ combining elements of Victorian pumping stations with modern domestic guttering systems, and Happier Valley, a film by Brighouse people showing how water has shaped their lives. There will be street entertainment and stalls selling local produce, theatre company Pif Paf will take visitor off in their travelling machine, the Flycycle, and there will be performances of new folk opera, Calderland.

The renovation links Piece Hall to another historic corner of Halifax, the Square Chapel, via a smart shared foyer featuring a striking glass art design. Created by artist Sarah Galloway, it spreads over several panes of glass alongside the original red brick of the 1772 chapel. The Square Chapel Arts Centre opened in June, following a £6.6m renovation. One of only a handful of square churches in the UK, the chapel has been an arts and community venue for 30 years. Its renovation includes an extension with cinema and stylish cafe bar, and upgraded performance area for comedy, drama and music.

This fabulous cultural quarter takes the town forward - with film, theatre, shops, community facilities, good dining and vibrant nightlife - and threads of its history are woven throughout.